The Secret Art World of Roskilde Festival. Exploring the Art Scene of a Dreamworld

Jacob Stubbe Østergaard

Roskilde Festival is a utopia. Like the mythical Scottish city of Brigadoon, it appears in the middle of nowhere and disappears again without a trace. While it's in bloom, it's where magic happens. For eight midsummer days, the festival site is the most densely populated place in the world. People flock to the festival to be at the center of the world. They come back ragged and dirty. They come back exhausted, but most of all, they come back enchanted.

The festival was built on music, but now the scene for other art forms is growing bigger and stranger every year. What really happens when you make art in this utopian dream metropolis, with 100,000 people dreaming, dancing, drunk and delusional? Is it impossible? Is it magical? Or both at the same time? Come along for a tour of the art world inside Roskilde Festival 2013. 

The festival as we know it: an enormous stage and a sea of people. Photo: Lars Just/POLFOTO/Roskilde Festival

Saturday evening at Roskilde Festival. The stage is big enough to host several olympic athletics events. Night is falling. The crowd roars. In from the left walk rock megalegends Metallica. I look up at lead singer Hetfield and lead singer Hetfield looks out over a sea of 60,000, roaring, seething, some sporting devil signs and black flags with skulls. They are ready to launch into a mad inferno of metal classics, the most legendary of which will be lifted up by a choir of festival-folk ten-thousand strong.

This is the image of the grand music festival as we know it. When the crowd of 60,000 disperses (as well as the other 10,000 who watched Ethiopian 70's funk or American hardcore punk while Metallica played), they head back to the vast camping area. The crowd is dense here too, and liberally dressed. A hundred different beats from improvised sound systems envelop the scene in chaos. People are running in the mud, playing drinking games, flirting, kissing, pissing by the fence and shouting barely audible utterances across the tents in the general sea of noise.

In such a world, is there room for art? Maybe not in the night, after the Metallica show. But when the festival people wake up in blazing sunlight, they may find something happening in the middle of this mess which is more than good music and stellar amounts of beer.

Roskilde is one of the giants among music festivals, with about 100,000 participants and 200 bands every year, squeezed into an area of 1,4 square km for 8 days. Roskilde has offered art experiences to its audience for a long time, but the scene has been growing steadily during recent years. This trend can also be seen at other major music festivals. Glastonbury in the UK and Coachella in the US are both expanding their art scenes too. "A festival is an unusual venue for art, but we believe it gives festival-goers a unique experience. It can challenge them and allow them to enter into exchanges with each other in a richer way", Roskilde Festival arts curator Signe Brink Pedersen says. "We want to make use of the potential that a festival has because it's like a parallel universe. And we want to challenge people and show them art can be a catalyst for involvement". 

Exhibit #1: The Velvet State - 'all the fiction you will feel is real'

The most unique experience this year might just be The Velvet State - an interactive performance installation with more than 30 performers. The Velvet State, residing within a structure of considerable size built specifically for the performance, is a modeling of a so-called 'sensuous society'. This is an imagined future society, in which the core values are aesthetic intensity and a sensory and poetic perception of the world, as opposed to the core values of the industrial society: efficiency, productivity, patience, restraint. Visitors to The Velvet State undergo an initiation ritual in which they have circles painted on their arms and are led around blindfolded. They are then led to meet the ten archetypes of the sensuous society - characters such as 'the fetishist', 'the dictator', 'the bewinged' and 'Pink Narcissus'. Each archetype is meant to challenge the participants to awaken dormant personality resources in themselves. According to performance curator Gry Worre Hallberg, that's what it's all about. Aside from curating, she has co-developed the Velvet State concept as part of Danish performance agency Fiction Pimps, in collaboration with British performance group Collective Unconscious and architect Simon Hjermind Jensen.
"We create fictions to awaken dormant potential in people.", she says, "One of our slogans is 'All the fiction you will feel is real'. I personally feel much more free when I step into this space. I free myself by taking another shape. I free myself from the fiction of my everyday life. It's a time-honoured rule of performance: Everything is constructed, and we might as well construct it in a different way."

The Velvet State by night - an alluring fatamorgana in the middle of the festival. Photo: Gry Worre Hallberg

After talking to Gry, it was with some trepidation that I entered The Velvet State (Gry having snuck me around the 4-hour queue). In the festival world, you can keep your defences up even though there's people everywhere. You can retreat into yourself. Were these people going to force me to open up? And was I ready for that?
The first wave of otherworldliness crashed over me in the shape of a loud ambient soundscape drowning out the noise from the festival, which had been in my ears all day. I was made to lie on the grass, blindfolded, alongside other eye-less visitors to this society. A long, blind, ambient and grassy moment later, I felt hands stroking my hair, and a little later, a voice began to speak into my ear. The voice asked me to recount a vivid childhood memory. I told the bodiless voice about a time when I was 16 and I had driven my bike out to the beach at night to sit on the rocks and stare at the sea. The voice asked me to describe the visual details of the rocks, the bike, the waves... It told me to keep thinking about the details in the memory and finally introduced itself as 'the voyeur' - only present when it can see you and you cannot see it. The voyeur had peered into my memories, but in doing so, it had also allowed me to see something from my own memory anew. I was blindfolded, and the voyeur had shared its eyes with me.
The fetischist's fetisch was hair. He coyly gestured to me, asking if he could have a little bit of my hair. I obliged. He showed great gratitude, complimented my hair, and hung it on a wire next to little bits of hair from other people. When I also agreed to let him cut off a little bit of my beard, he bowed down and drew from a secret hiding place a small bag. The bag contained a gift for me: a small lock of bright blue hair, which he plumed by my left ear. "Do you think you can learn to value the hair?", one of the white-clad custodians of the sensuous society asked me when I had left the fetischist's room.
'Pink Narcissus' lay on a bed, bare-chested, with glitter on his face, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. The room was full of gold and brocade. "Do you see his beauty, and do you see the beauty in yourself too?", his servant asked me. "No, in this room I see only vanity.", I replied. "Then look differently", she said. "Look with love." I did as she told me, and moments later I saw the narcissist's beauty and his beauty reflected in me. Apparently, it was in just this way that the sensuous society aimed to release dormant personality resources in me and the other participants. I had reacted typically, venomously, against the narcissist, whose every movement said "Look at me! Love me!". But subsequently I had proven to myself that I was able to perceive him differently if I willed it. 

Inside The Velvet State. "Audiences respond very well to performance that gets up close and physical with the festival guests", curator Signe Brink Pedersen notes. Photo: Jesper Hyuk Larsen

It would be easy to forget all about the festival while inside The Velvet State, but The Velvet State and the Roskilde Festival outside, different as they seem, are inextricably connected: "The festival can seem a little brutal compared to the vulnerability which is predominant inside The Velvet State. But this also makes it more intense to step in here." Gry Worre Hallberg explains, and goes on to make an important point: "I believe most festival-goers open up a sensibility at the festival. Even though it is expressed in different ways out there in the festival area, I don't believe it's too far from the sensibility present in The Velvet State. This is very different from when we make a performance-installation in Copenhagen where all the guests have a lot of preconceptions. Our guests here have a whole other kind of sensibility. Maybe they haven't even slept and they've been drinking for three days in a row. So their senses are wide open, but they haven't yet made use of that in the way that you can in The Velvet State." The parallel universe of the festival makes the parallel universe of The Velvet State possible. It is a site-specific performance which could not have taken place anywhere else.

Working days in Utopia

Performance and events generally dominate this year's art programme, and for good reasons. Head curator Signe Brink Pedersen explains:  "Performance works very well as an alternative to the music stages where there is a clear division between the stage and the audience and you have a direct one-way experience. We get positive reactions to performance that gets up close and physical with people in the public space." Whereas the music deals with people as crowds, performance engages people as individuals.
It's no wonder that artists find it interesting to work in a setting like this. Roskilde Festival is a place where people have left their concerns and their inhibitions behind. I walk through the crowd and I see one guy dressed up as Spiderman, another wearing a horse's head, several naked people with only sunshine on their skin, a group of strangers dancing and falling over to the beats from someone's ghettoblaster, people asleep in the middle of everything, and in every corner young people entwined, kissing and stroking each other's hair.
Signe Brink Pedersen informs me that festival guests often describe the festival to her as a kind of utopia. I know what she means. Memories are made here, new relationships take shape, and things that seem outrageous in the outside world are common here. During the weeks after the festival, a whole culture suffers from sleep-deprivation and a heavy nostalgia. Many nostalgiacs wear their access wristbands for months afterwards, although the festival quickly begins to seem like it was just a dream. "Some of the artists who come here for the first time are taken aback by how intense it can be. But they are very pleased afterwards. It's also very exhausting to work here. There's always a 'whoa!'-effect for new artists.", Signe tells me.

Sunken ship in the swamp (72 Hour Urban Action)

Exhibit #2: 72 Hour Urban Action - building tomorrow's public spaces

"It's very extreme", Gilly Karjevsky replies, asked what it's like to work at the Roskilde Festival. She is co-organizer of 72 Hour Urban Action - one of the other big art events at this year's festival. It's an event in which teams compete in building temporary structures that enhance the surrounding urban environment in an innovative way. Each team is given a site and a mission (unspecific enough to leave the spotlight to the participants' ideas), and they have 72 hours to invent, design and build their structures. It's an exercise in performance architecture - a growing trend in which swiftly constructed, temporary structures are used for experimenting with urban areas. The 72 Hour Urban Action organizers seek out sites that are not fulfilling their full potential and formulate missions to amend them. Compared to the normal architectural process, temporary architecture gives much more room for experimentation and innovation. The process is shorter, and it doesn't matter if the temporary structure is a failure because it's going to be taken down again anyway. If it's a success, on the other hand, it is likely to inspire durable architecture and make a real difference. Part of the growing interest in temporary architecture might be due to the growing importance of environmental issues:  "Temporary architecture can respond more quickly to changing realities", Gilly says. "Human behaviour is changing a lot faster than the environment changes and this creates a lot of tension between us and the environment. Temporary architecture comes to answer that tension."
In the construction enclosure, the air is pierced by the sound of chainsaws, hammers and drills. Men and women in orange overalls go to and fro among half-finished wooden structures, speculating, planning, measuring, experimenting, building. "We hope to see innovation in public space-making.", project founder Kerem Halbrecht tells me. "What I am interested in is creating more possibilities. Inventing new tactics, new frameworks to allow people to feel that their surroundings have value."
I walk over to the team in the far corner of the enclosure and ask them what they're building. "Our site is the little swamp over there", competition participant and furniture designer Yoep Roth from The Netherlands tells me, pointing over at the small swamp in the middle of the camping area, "so we have decided to build a sunken ship that sticks out of the swamp, where people can sit and chill." He shows me where the bow of the ship is going to be, while some of his teammates check up the angles and the strength of the ship's body.

In the other side of the construction enclosure, a team of French, German and Danish creatives are working on a different project. This project relates to The Dome; a dome-shaped building on the camping area which hosts recitals and other events. Architect and team member Oliver Borg fills me in: "Instead of making one big structure," he says, "we are making these hexagonal seats which can be moved around. This allows people to create their own sitting environment. But if they want to run off with them, they will have to cooperate because all the seats are tied together by wires".

Sitting environment by The Dome. 'Let the dome spill', Team 1 was instructed.

72 Hour Urban Action takes place in 'Dream City' - an endeavour to get festival goers involved in shaping their own environment. "There are virtually no limits to what you can create or build in Dream City", the description reads - just like in a dream.
Returning two days later, I find the structures installed and people using them as if they had always been there. But of course these structures are not half as alien here as in a traditional urban context, because everything else is temporary too. The tents, the dome and the construction enclosure and everything except the grass and the swamp will be gone in a few weeks, just like a dream.

What does this dreamlike, ephemeral but intense quality do to the art that emerges from the festival?
"The basic challenge is the same", Kerem Halbrecht asserts:  "How do you improve the way people can live together? Even if it's temporary. We have 100,000 people living here. It's a camp situation, but cities have some features similar to camps and vice versa."

"The festival context is positive", Kerem adds. "You see people get out of their normal lives  and maybe not giving a damn for a few days. As designers, as architects, we are interested in how people behave and how they interact with their physical surroundings and with one another. So I think it enhances the inherent qualities of curiosity that we have." Gilly sums up: "It allows teams to come up with more open ideas and concepts. The festival gives us a new type of installations."

'The Gate', winner of the 72 Hour Urban Action contest"

Exhibit #3: VOINA - fighting for rights with penises and vodka

The festival certainly does seem to be a breeding ground for art projects that might have been impossible under normal circumstances. In another part of the temporary metropolis, the Spanish art group Basurama is hosting art workshops where festival people build music instruments out of trash collected from the camping area. There are flutes made of markers, shakers made of plastic bottles and sand, and a xylophone made of glass bottles, mounted on a shopping kart. It is somewhat out of tune, but it sounds musical enough. The workshops lead up to a concert, with festival people playing the improvised instruments together.
This low-key event epitomizes the Roskilde art scene: participatory, inspiring creativity and with a side-note of social and environmental responsibility.
These factors were also determinative in the controversial decision to invite the Russian rights activist group VOINA to the festival. Famous in Russia for performances involving setting police cars on fire, overturning of police cars and repeated shoplifting, VOINA is radically anti-establishment on another level than the other art groups present. They are very far indeed from the classical idea of the "festival". Coming from a brutal reality of persecution, prison sentences and political oppression, their presence inbetween Rihanna, Kraftwerk and thousands of happy and drunk Danish teenagers adds surrealism to the festival. In the sea of people and noise and activities that makes up the Roskilde Festival, VOINA shoots up once in a while like a whale spraying water, and then back under the water. You would see them holding giant white banners, shouting into megaphones and trying to make more than just another drop in the festival ocean. The biggest banner shows a picture of their founder, Oleg Vorotnikov, behind bars, with the subtitle: WANTED. On Thursday evening, as the festival is about to open officially, VOINA has lodged this enormous banner across the path between the entrance gate and the music stages. Some of the passers-by mutter "who the hell is that!?", most of them walk straight towards the music stages, beers in hand, without flinching an eye, and some stop to witness the event taking place under the banner. It is quite a spectacle. A woman is dressed up as Vladimir Putin, wearing suit and tie and Putin's face as a mask. Strapped to her hip is a sizeable dildo, and into the megaphone, a VOINA supporter is shouting the offer: "Here's your chance to suck Vladimir Putin's dick and get free vodka!". Volunteers to get a taste of Putin's privates are made to choose a mask of a European leader (Merkel, Cameron, Sarkozy, Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt...) to wear while sucking. Afterwards, they are rewarded with Russian luxuries: vodka and cucumber. The action is cleverly titled "Europe Sucks".

From Russia with a vengeance. VOINA held five actions at the Roskilde Festival: 'Political Prisoners', 'Voina Wanted', 'Fuck apathy', 'Europe Sucks' and 'Fuck hypocrisy' 

"It's an art portrait of relationships between Russia and European politicians.", VOINA core member Alexey Plutser-Sarno comments. He also confirms that they are employing a general strategy of 'freeing people from apathy' by giving them a sensory metaphorical experience of a political situation instead of just information.

"Europe Sucks" was one of five actions carried out by VOINA at Roskilde Festival. More attention was given to the action "VOINA Wanted", which saw VOINA covering up with their own banners the art works of another festival artist, Ron English (whose 2D murals, for all their artistic qualities, seemed strangely mute in the high-energy context of the festival). Ron English immediately destroyed VOINA's banners and expressed disdain in public. Alexey Plutser-Sarno explains that this was not an act of disrespect, merely a provocation, with the goal of putting more focus on the problem of political prisoners in Russia.
VOINA's presence makes the total art program seem confused.  Where is the connection between the actions of VOINA, narrowly focused on very concrete political problems, and the dreamy quality of a performance like The Velvet State, creating fictions to release people from their everyday lives? Gry Worre Hallberg, developer of the Velvet State concept, reflects: "Imagining a sensuous society, as The Velvet State is about, is extremely political. Only, it takes the very broadest perspective. VOINA works within a completely different context. They face some very imminent political problems, to which they must react. We use a vulnerable and poetic expression. They use more destructive force in their performances. But that is also a path to the sensuous. It is reminiscent of the 'killer' archetype in The Velvet State."
I asked Alexey whether VOINA strives for an artistic integrity or they are just trying to deliver their message as effectively as possible. "Look at our phallus on the Liteiniy bridge...", he replied
(VOINA famously painted a 65m-penis on a drawbridge, which was then erected just across from the building of the Russian secret service).
"...of course it's got an artistic integrity, thickness (23 meters across), length (65 meters) and even artistic weight (4000 tonnes). Do you understand what I mean?"
Festival participant being initiated into The Velvet State. Photo: Jesper Hyuk Larsen

Roskilde Arts - fulfilling the potential of a magical festival 

By standard criteria, it's hard to claim the art side of Roskilde 2013 was not generally a big success. Maybe this is obvious at a place with so many people, all with time on their hands. Maybe half of them didn't even notice that there was other art at the festival than music. But what did the art programme mean to those who did care? I grabbed a some random people from the crowd and asked them about it. One of them said that she did not usually go to art events, but she did at the festival. Why? "Because it's a good break from the music concerts, I guess... it supplements them in a nice way".
Head curator Signe Brink Pedersen says the festival has been experimenting with using art to give the festival into the hands of its participants. The festival is immersive as it is, but it still has an unfulfilled potential, which is being fulfilled by the art. Performance curator Gry Worre Hallberg makes a different point: "I think a lot of the 'other world' activities here go in the same direction...", she says - probably referring to the tendency of festival goers to immerse themselves in partying and drinking. "... and we want to offer them a more poetic and sensuous otherworldliness".

Perhaps in response to a cultural development on a more general level, Roskilde Festival appears to be using art to turn the music festival into a more total personal experience, engaging the audience both as individuals and as members of a society, inside and outside the festival.

Now, as the grass is growing back and the birds are singing where Metallica played on the big stage, maybe some dreams dreamed in that enchanted city are still living. Gry ponders: "A festival is an ephemeral space, but our goal is that what people go through in The Velvet States settles deeply in them and that they bring it with them and let it inspire them in their everyday lives."